MIAMI — He has been displaced from his home in the Florida Keys, flung into limbo, his treasured senior year wildly upended and his treasured football field flooded. So the high school football player improvises.
Back down at home in Marathon, Jordy Mejia would bench-press 370 pounds. Here in the apartment complex of his mother, grandmother and aunt, the machine allows only for 300. As he describes in a bone-quiet lobby lounge where the power flickers out twice during a 30-minute interview, he tries more push-ups, more pull-ups, more repetitions, anything to keep him going for two distracting daily hours.
His coach stays with kind friends all the way up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and does . . . what?
“That’s a good question,” said Paul Davis, who is also a digital-technology teacher at Marathon High School. “I don’t know what to do. I sit around. I’m on social media all the time, hearing what people have got to say. I put that down, and then I start thinking, ‘Do I work on my lesson plan?’ Then I put that down. ‘Am I going to have a job when I get back?’ Just all kind of things go through my mind. I pray. And the Lord told me to be still.”
Another coach, John Hughes of the Key West High Fighting Conchs, faced three days hunkered in a house south of Miami with his parents and fiancee and four boys, without power and with scant contact from those in Key West. So he took a pen and a spiral notebook and did what coaches do.
He drew some plays.
Beyond Hurricane Irma’s tragic effects and sprawling sabotage of electrical power, the vast storm that combed the state last weekend has ransacked football, a matter both trivial and not trivial. Nearly every high school has a game cancellation or two already. Players wonder whether a diminished amount of game film might cost them, college-wise. Florida’s seven universities in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top tier of college football, have combined for seven cancellations and one postponement.
Schools closed, so practices ebbed. Just 90 minutes north-northwest in the Everglades near the muck and the sugar cane, Glades Central High School, renowned for sending an unusual amount of alumni to the NFL, felt ghostly. A locked fence prevented access even to the parking lot. A next-door trailer park reeled with standing water.
Back down in lush Coconut Grove, Miami’s oldest neighborhood, Irma threw around some boats, one onto the football field at Ransom Everglades High. Nearby in Coral Gables, the University of Miami had a closed campus, a canceled road game (Sept. 9 at Arkansas State) and a postponed road game (Saturday at Florida State). Down into the Keys, beyond the fresh roadblock to the 113-mile Overseas Highway, Irma took Key West High’s brand-new scoreboard and its state-of-the-art wind resistance and sneered, hurling it into the stands.
About an hour back up toward the mainland, Marathon High’s scoreboard stood, but with a sad-looking expression, its legs deep in water that had swelled over the field. And while all of these football people repeat their could-have-been-much-worse gratefulness in earnest choruses, Davis, the head coach whose 37 players are strewn from Florida to Vermont, gave a telltale assessment from Michigan:
“I can tell you this much right now, and this is pretty much a fact: Our football field, there’s a river going through the field, and to see it now, it’s just like a big pile of mud. We can’t play a home game.”
Already Mejia, Marathon’s 280-pound senior center and defensive tackle, had completed the heart-stopping task of checking a website for aerial views of his house, which looked fine even in a 9,000-strong town a teammate called “unrecognizable.” The Twitter view of that field, however, stirred feelings almost inexplicable.
“I got a little bit devastated, a little upset,” he said, “because I’ve been on that field since I can remember, have been playing on it. It hurt to see how that was looking, how our parking lot was looking, stuff like that . . . I got a little down. I got a little upset. I was thinking about my last season. I was overthinking a little bit, and I talked to my coach [Davis]. He’s a good mentor, he’s a role model, he’s a leader. I talk to him on a daily basis, and he just told me, ‘We’re going to play this season. We’re going to have to finish it.’ ”
“I was at the school more than I was at my own house, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “From going to school, to working out, to practice and doing all of that stuff, it was kind of upsetting, just seeing it all kind of wash away a little bit.”
“Really shocking,” he said softly.
Mejia has endured the dead-phone days when he couldn’t learn about the three teammates who stayed in Marathon with their families.
He has talked to one who subsequently left for North Carolina but, before leaving, on a landline, told Mejia how Irma “was just the scariest thing,” how it “felt like everything around them was getting destroyed,” how the town looked “destroyed and disgusting,” with “trees everywhere,” and “just, like, unrecognizable.”
He has heard from some of the Division II college football programs that have shown interest, and a coach from Hamline University in Minnesota lavished Mejia with support.
“First, it opened my eyes,” Mejia said of Irma. “It makes you humble, and it makes you appreciate the days that you didn’t appreciate that you had, it makes you appreciate even more, because it just teaches you it could all go away in a second. It could all go away so fast, and we’re taking it one step at a time. . . . What’s the worst is that we really don’t know, like, what’s at home.
“We’re not able to go back in there yet. So we don’t know what to expect. We don’t know what’s left of our homes. Some people, it might have been all they’ve got. Some people might end up homeless. Some people might leave the town because they don’t have anything left. The scariest thing is not knowing what’s going on, and, like, there’s no water. There’s no electricity. There’s nothing down there. So that makes it even worse, is just not knowing. Not knowing what’s left of a house is the hardest part of it.”
Already he has reshaped priorities, spinning his beloved football into a secondary spot behind abetting the recovery of his beloved town, with all its water and its spearfishing and its scuba diving and its everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere. He keeps thoughts about the 18 seniors and the vastly improved results — the opening win and the second-game loss, a semi-recovery from a 36-10 halftime deficit in a 56-37 loss — that made everybody yearn for more.
“This was the year we were going to just explode,” he said.
He just stresses this: “We know we have to build up again, and start from mostly nothing, and start to help the community. And before we can even start our football season again, we’ve got to help out around the community and get everything back together, get our houses together, make sure no one’s homeless. And that’s just the most important thing, is being safe and making sure everybody’s all right.”
All of the above stirs even more for his head coach, who grew up in Marathon, played quarterback and free safety for Marathon and, along with teammate Troy Campbell, left Marathon all the way to the Mid-American Conference, with Davis a defensive back at Western Michigan and Campbell at Akron.
“A big thing, coming back home and being a coach at my alma mater,” Davis said. “This is home for me, man. And that’s why it hurts more than anything.”
Like many a longtime Floridian, he feels hurricanes in his bones.
He grew up with parents who knew the horror of Hurricane Donna in 1960, so they took evacuations seriously and transformed them into “little vacations” for their children. He lost a car in 2005 to Hurricane Wilma. He felt the fear at school last Tuesday. He wished 100 percent of his team could evacuate, he said, “because the nightmares you’re going to get from being in the storm like that, they never leave you.”
He and his wife exited Wednesday morning in two cars, dropping off one in Titusville on the east coast of Florida, then driving 16 hours to Knoxville, Tenn., then toward family in Ohio and in Michigan, where Davis’s three grown children live. He knows his tasks upon returning will start with helping students adapt to “the trauma we just went through, just trying to get everybody back mentally.”
Still, there’s room in there for some pure, football wistfulness. After working both in a sheriff’s office in Florida and in a juvenile detention office in Michigan, he has spent four coaching years at Marathon righting a struggling program at a wee school with 650 students from sixth grade through 12th.
“Honestly, maybe the great thing about it, the fans got to see it, that it was there,” he said. “Obviously, something good was going on.”
Seated in his parents’ back yard south of Miami, Hughes of Key West High liked his year, too. Now he might feel happy to play six of the 10 scheduled games, but he knows the priorities, which begin with that there were no casualties among the handful of his players who stayed.
Hughes had players from military families who evacuated early, players whose families evacuated three times as Irma kept weaving and bobbing. He, too, remembers pre-storm fear of a flattened Key West and knows some families might transfer out. He wonders if the equipment shed and the stadium lights survived but thinks it unfair to ask anyone to go look, especially with gasoline scarce for now.
He coaches where players sometimes miss practice because they must help fathers with the lobster pots, or because they must shop for school clothes, three hours away and back, or because of hurricanes, or threats of hurricanes. He can tell you how Hurricane Andrew of 1992 restructured the power in Miami-area high school football, because of family relocations. He can surmise his returning players might have some tough days, just as Hughes went outside after Andrew and saw “the lack of greenery,” with “every leaf, stripped off,” and, “Whether it was the wind that took it off, or the salt that killed it, they’re going to see that. That natural beauty that was there, that awe-inspiring drive, that’s going to be a lot different for them.”
Yet he can spot a beacon, too.
Senior years with friends for the last time . . . playoff possibilities . . . “So there’s all those dynamics that are involved there that you just take for granted for a while, and then when somebody takes it from you, or something takes it from you, all those little things start adding up. I think you relish the opportunity a little bit more. So when they do get back on the field, it’s going to be a much more grateful, focused senior group. Not that they weren’t before, but I think there’s just that, ‘Wow, that’s what it feels like to almost not do it again.’
“Obviously, I couldn’t duplicate that feeling for them. I couldn’t give them that sense of finality that the storm did.”
As he spoke, Friday night loomed. As a coach with a canceled home game, he vowed to find some high school football somewhere, if at all possible. Far away in Michigan, Davis vowed identically.
“I think I’m going to go try to find some high school football,” he said, soon adding, “Smell that grass, you know.”
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